Water and the West in Historical Imagination: Part Two-A Decade Later

By Hundley, Norris, Jr. | The Historian, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Water and the West in Historical Imagination: Part Two-A Decade Later


Hundley, Norris, Jr., The Historian


IN 1996 WHEN I (unbeknownst to me at the time) published what turned out to be the predecessor to this essay, I did so with a wee bit of apprehension. There were signs that an antiaridity school of western historiography might be in the making--"an 'A' word to join the [then suspect by many] 'F' word in the western lexicon." (1) I need not have worried about "A"--or about "F" either, for that matter. The appearance in the last decade of more than a hundred and fifty new books and articles is compelling evidence that scholarly interest in water, aridity, and the American West continues to flourish.

That florescence was quite a while in the making. Frederick Jackson Turner in the first quarter of the twentieth century and Walter Prescott Web and James Malin in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s anticipated much that was to come on this topic, but all, even Turner, were out of step with their fellow scholars. Widespread and energetic interest in the West, water, and aridity first emerged in the 1970s and 1980s with what was then an unprecedented outpouring of scholarship. The initial enthusiasm, as I noted in 1996, was part of a sea change in historical inquiry that elevated to prominence not only western history but also a host of other topics and peoples--women, Native Americans, Chicanos, African Americans, Asian Americans, gender, ethnicity, race, labor, the environment, and so much more. (2)

Much of the more recent literature on water, aridity, and the West has continued to emphasize earlier themes: the federal government's role through the Reclamation Service (Bureau of Reclamation after 1923) and the Army Corps of Engineers in promoting dam building, agriculture, urban development, and the economy before environmental concerns and a host of critical voices led to sharply reduced funding and a reassessment of missions; the impact of the courts, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tradition, and common sense on the changing nature of Indian water rights; the role of states, sometimes in harmony and often at odds with the federal government, in shaping water institutions, including the public marketing of water; the impact and evolution of Spanish/Mexican institutions and, later, American courts and legislatures on water law; and so the topics multiply.

Many of the scholars whose research contributed to the enthusiasm of the 1970s and 1980s have remained prolific into more recent years. Among them is Donald Worster, whose superb biography of John Wesley Powell, A River Running West (2000), details the life of a man of many accomplishments, including a major role in the creation of the U.S. Geological Survey and in preparing the way for the reclamation era. (3) Worster's book not only recounts the events in Powell's extraordinary life--military service in the Civil War, noted explorer (especially his Colorado River expeditions of 1869 and 1871-72), embattled government bureaucrat, philosopher--but also the values that motivated him. In an extended discussion of those values and the contemporary American culture of the 1840s to the twentieth century in which, Worster contends, they were rooted, this study adds a valuable dimension to Powell's life not found in Wallace Stegner's biography. Those values included a strong sense of mission that drove Powell and others of his generation into the Union army, into exploring the national patrimony, and into pursuing scientific knowledge for the betterment of the nation. That other Americans equally driven could strongly disagree with Powell's findings, judgments, and actions served only to reinforce the powerful sense of mission they shared.

Donald Pisani's magisterial Water and American Government (2002), his second volume in a projected trilogy, takes up where John Wesley Powell's era and Pisani's earlier To Reclaim a Divided West (1992), more or less, leave off. In what is now the standard account of its subject, Pisani's latest book covers the evolution of federal reclamation policies from 1902, when Congress approved the Reclamation Act and inaugurated a national program promoting irrigation in the West, to the mid-1930s, when the program's preeminent focus shifted to supplying water to burgeoning western cities. …

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